Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers, edited by Susan Morrison

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Two stars, read in November 2016 (ugh).

One of my reading challenges this year includes a category for an anthology entirely by women writers, and I was excited that this fit the requirement. I really, really wish I had tracked it down earlier, because by the time my interlibrary loan request came in, the election had already happened. This book was significantly less fun to read post-2016 election.

There were essays I found a bit silly (and they may have been intended that way; I’m not totally sure), like Susan Orlean speculating on what the Clinton family pets say about Hillary, and Mimi Sheraton analyzing her food preferences. There are ones that just made me roll my eyes, like Lionel Shriver’s, which only cemented my developing dislike of her as a person and as a feminist.

The most common theme, however, is the one in which almost all of these women (1) comment on the unfair scrutiny Hillary Clinton is subjected to and then (2) carry right on doing it. Jane Kramer demonstrates it the most specifically:

None of this answers the question of why I continue to subject Hillary Rodham Clinton to the kind of scrutiny I would never think to apply to men. I look at the men running for president and ask myself if their politics are mine, or close enough to mine to be appealing . . . I hope for the best, with men. I expect the best from women, and at the same time I know I will be disappointed . . . I also disappoint myself. Maybe I have not evolved. The women’s movement that I attached myself to, early on, is trying to figure out Hillary when it should be trying to win an election in 2008. I agree with Gloria Steinem. When asked if she was for Clinton or Obama, she replied, “I am for Clinton and Obama.”

Which is exactly what I wish I could pound into everyone’s brain that is still struggling with this. You don’t have to have her figured out. I mean, how much do you actually KNOW Obama or Bernie or any other politician you’ve had no problem voting for? We don’t know politicians—we just don’t. We can only judge them based on what they say they’re going to do, and then what they do. Stop holding a magnifying glass to Hillary Clinton, trying to figure out why you just don’t like her. It doesn’t fucking matter if you like her. Do you think she can do the job? Do you think she would be better at the job than Donald Trump? Then you should have voted for her, end of story.

From Amy Wilentz, on why there is nothing Hillary can do to make herself more “relatable” and “real” to all the people who think she isn’t:

What if you had to operate in a universe where you were never allowed to say what you really felt? Could you go out and buy foie gras at a specialty market if you were running for president? Could you admit that you spoke French (John Kerry did, fatally)? . . . Could you, as I often do, miss three consecutive appointments to get your hair cut? And really: what if you had to wear pantsuits or a turquoise jacket with a turquoise necklace and turquoise earrings? How would you explain this to your real friends?

From Katha Pollitt, the view of The Idea of Hillary that I think is most accurate:

Every woman I know who calls herself a feminist, or is even just doing well, especially in a field in which men also contend, deals with some version of this, an underlying unease she evokes just by being a woman who doesn’t devote every wakimg minute to making some man feel ten feet tall. Sure, you can brush it off, but that brushing off, over a lifetime, has psychic costs. And anyway, why should you have to?

Think of it this way: if all the castrating bitches voted for Satan’s daughter, the ambitious lesbian robot, we might actually move the feminist revolution out of the parking lot where it has been sitting, low on gas and with major transmission problems, for the last decade and a half. Maybe the only way to defuse the immense fear so many Americans have of a woman assuming the quintessentially masculine mantle of the presidency, her delicate manicured index finger hovering over the nuclear button, is for them to experience it and get over it.

From Lorrie Moore, a point on one specific hypocrisy (that could be applied in response to Shriver’s essay):

That anyone should be faulted for using his or her connections to run for public office seems a little laughable, since that is what politics has ever involved: “friends.”

From Susan Cheever, a paragraph that makes me want to cry because she said this in 2008:

Hillary is always trying to get us to forget that she is a woman because she knows how distracting it can be. Yet it’s the most important thing about her. She isn’t just another suit. She’s not one of those dead white males who still happens to be alive. Quietly, without tears or flirtatiousness, she is changing what it means to be a woman. “If she can win, women can do anything,” a 12-year-old friend of mine said the other day as we picked up some cookies at the bakery. As the election that I hope will make her president approaches, Hillary Clinton seems to be relaxing into the feisty, smart, educated woman she was when she was younger, a woman who sounds a lot like Jo March when she grins and says, “I’m your girl.”

God, I wanted Hillary to be our girl. I still want it. I will probably never stop wanting it.

From Kathryn Harrison, in one of the most unique essays in the book, talking about the dynamic between her grandparents in her childhood:

I never had to be taught the truths of androgyny: that society comprised aggressive, controlling, “manly” women as well as gentle, retiring, “womanly” men. I grew up assuming this was the way of the world. It was only in college, having left home and the small independent school I’d attended since I was 2, a school founded by a woman who looked and acted like a man and that rewarded achievement regardless of gender, that I discovered discrimination against women (and even then I only discovered it as a topic of study). The world has shown me sexism in practice, but I’ve persisted in my innocence—somehow it always seems a mistake, an exception, not a rule. Such was the influence of my upbringing, which has left me with just this much sense of responsibility: everything else being equal, I will vote for a woman over a man, because there are a lot of people out there, a lot of enfranchised citizens, who weren’t as fortunate as I was.

From Katie Roiphe, a suggestion that maybe feminists—and women in general—need to take a hard look at themselves to find out why this is such an intractable issue:

In fact, Hillary’s drive, her ambition, her hard work, her deft manipulation of power, her refusal to be vulnerable, her unwillingness to allow love to get in the way of career goals, at least in her mature years, could be seen, if anything, as a sign of strength. She is in many ways the feminist dream incarnate, the opportunity made flesh, the words we whisper to little girls: “You can be president. You can do anything you want.” Surely if one had said to a group of women waving picket signs in the 1980s, one day there will be a presidential candidate as ruthless, as cold, as willing to sacrifice relationships for power as any man, they would have been heartened. And yet, even our admiration for her undeniable achievements has a chilly aspect, an abstract, pro forma quality. If Clinton is in many ways the embodiment of certain feminist ideals, then it may be that many of us don’t like feminism in its purest form.

And from Dahlia Lithwick, making the same point:

I have long believed that if the story of Hillary Clinton had been a movie on Lifetime Television for Women, we would all be naming our babies after her. There is nothing, it seems, that we women love more than plucky survivors who suffer immensely and triumph as the credits roll. If the Hillary Clinton story were a movie, starring Cheryl Ladd or some other former Charlie’s Angle as the reviled First Lady with the cheating husband who went on to become the first serious female contender for the White House, we’d every last one of us be going door to door for Hillary.

But there’s something about the reality of Hillary Clinton, the accomodations she has made and the roles she has played, that leaves many of us cold. The question I can’t help asking is: Do we only warm to successful women when they aren’t real? . . .

I’ve been polling women friends for years now on their feelings about Hillary Clinton, and, overwhelmingly, what I hear is that their hearts are unwilling to follow where their heads have led. We all like the idea of a Hillary.

From Deborah Tannen, an exploration of the “double bind” that cripples women in power—because “society’s expectations about how a woman should behave and how a person in authority should behave are at odds”:

Here’s how it worked then: Hillary started out paying little attention to her hair, holding it off her face with a headband and leaving its natural color unchanged. For this she was ridiculed. (She wasn’t conforming to what society expects of a good woman: paying a lot of attention to her appearance.) So she did what her critics seemed to demand: she got her hair styled and highlighted. Then she was ridiculed for trying several different hairstyles as she sought one that worked. (She wasn’t conforming to what we expect of a public figure, which is steadiness and consistency.) Then her new hairstyles became fodder for interpretation of her character: she was too changeable, too concerned with appearances. In a word (though the word wasn’t used at the time), she was pressed to have—then blamed for having had—a makeover.

From Susan Lehman, an exploration of how Hillary’s origins in corporate law may have formed the basis of her public persona:

Neither Hillary Clinton nor the average corporate law partner is likely to make anyone’s blood jump or their heart sing. When you are in trouble, however—real troubleit may be that the person you want to see isnt the guy who wows you with his wit and charisma but someone who has really done her homework, pored over all the boring details, and then gone back over them again, just for fun.

Look, everyone who has read Harry Potter knows this—you can make fun of Hermione all you want, but she’s the one you want handling shit when it gets real.

From Lara Vapnyar, another response to Lionel Shriver’s nitpicking bullshit (not written as a response, presumably, just a response in my mind):

I can’t quite reconcile the fact that Hillary arrived at her present status by riding the wave of her husband’s enormous celebrity, and that she became so popular by forgiving his cheating. I would prefer a woman who rose to prominence all on her own. But let’s be realistic. We are not there yet, and we are not even firmly on the way to getting there. And if the only way for a woman to arrive at a position of true political power is by being a wife, it is not her fault, it is society’s fault. In the end, I don’t care how she gets there; I just want her to get there. Hillary is smart, she is tough, she is steady, and yet she is capable of being flexible. She does seem to be the best candidate for the job . . . If she gets elected, there will be no turning back: the perception of a woman’s role will inevitably change.

Which is, to me, the issue that should supersede all other complaints. Because none of those complaints are specific to Hillary Clinton; they are either a function of her profession, or a function of her femaleness. It is endlessly frustrating to me that people don’t see this.

From Leslie Bennetts:

Every once in a while, of course, the body politic must reluctantly contemplate actual questions of substance. Here the double standards are even more breathtaking. Hillary has cared about and worked for the same issues throughout her adult life, and yet she is the one accused of being an unprincipled opportunist, even as her Republican opponents shamelessly flip-flop on everything from abortion rights to the troublesome question of gay personhood. But then, they are men, and men are allowed to betray their spouses and children, lie about their intentions, change their positions and pretend they didn’t, and pretty much do whatever else they please, all without being held accountable. Women, in sum, are not.

And when their views on a subject do evolve, all hell breaks loose. Hillary got more grief about voting for the war in Iraq and then turning against it than all the Repulican candidates combined have gotten about the innumerable changes in their own positions on important issues . . . She was one of seventy-seven senators who voted to authorize that resolution, but she has paid the highest personal price of any of them.

I read Leslie Bennetts’ essay the most quickly, because I was trying to finish my book on the last day I had to return it to the library. But it also seems to contain the most content I wanted to share.

And yet through it all, Hillary persists, doesn’t she? You can’t drive a stake through this woman’s heart. After all these years, after all the calumnies and humiliations and defeats that would have crushed a lesser mortal regardless of gender, she always gets back up and carries on . . .

Hillary’s friend Susie May said, “What she’s really showing people is that all of us have multidimensional lives. She is living one right in front of us.”

All these years later, she’s still doing it, although the stakes have risen to the stratosphere. Throughout nearly forty years as a public figure, Hillary Clinton has stubbornly refused to let herself, or her life, or her potential be defined by our society’s ridiculously circumscribed female gender roles. The prison of those expectations couldn’t accommodate the complexities of Hillary even as a dewy-fresh Wellesley graduation speaker, let alone as the battle-scarred veteran of innumerable wars—many public, many more private—that she has long since become.

How did we ever imagine that the one-dimensional roles we force women into could hold her now? For she contains multitudes.

I have to admit—though I have not let myself do so before now—I hope she will run again. I can’t imagine how she could run again, because after this, if I were her, my spirit would be broken. But I can’t help it—I believe that she is stronger than me. And as unfathomably ridiculous as it would be, Hillary Clinton still running for president in 2020 . . . God, I hope she will do it. Because if anyone could do it—it will be her.

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3 thoughts on “Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers, edited by Susan Morrison

    1. It’s definitely interesting to see what writers were saying about her in 2008, although it’s a little depressing, too. I would certainly recommend it for anyone who’s interested in Hillary’s history.

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